Newhall Ranch Project Hits a Wall
Kern County Judge Finds Problems with Water Supply, Floodplain Constriction, Ecological Area Impacts, Wildlife Corridor, Traffic
In a ruling which restores our faith that courts will uphold the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall ruled on May 31 that Los Angeles County must fix several problems before it can proceed with the 22,000-unit Newhall Ranch project, the largest in the county's history. Shrinking of the project, perhaps significantly, now looms as a very real possibility. Although he found for Los Angeles County on some points, Judge Randall sided with FSCR, SCOPE, the Sierra Club, and Ventura County on numerous key issues, including water supply, floodplain constriction, general plan non-conformance, inadequate wildlife corridor studies, and flawed traffic analyses. The environmental groups opposing the project were represented by John Buse of the Environmental Defense Center's Ventura office, and Jan Chatten-Brown and Douglas Carstens of Chatten-Brown and Associates.
The ruling proves that Newhall Land and Farming Company's (NLF) supposedly "bombproof" Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has more than a few holes, afterall. William Fulton, editor of a statewide planning newsletter and author of several books on California development, was quoted in the June 2 Los Angeles Times as saying the fact that the judge found defects with the development could affect its size. "Ultimately, this might shrink the project", he said. The most difficult issue now confronting project proponents is that of water supply. The ruling requires that L.A. County and NLF demonstrate that "adequate water sources are available for the buildout of the project". With 40,000 housing units already approved or pending in the Santa Clarita Valley, finding sufficient water for 22,000 more units could prove to be a tough prospect, indeed. Project promoters had hoped to rely on additional state water imported by the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA) but these hopes may founder on the problem of poor reliability of state water in drought years. Further, CLWA's EIR covering importation of 41,000 acre feet per year from Kern County, which NLF had partly relied on to cover project water needs, is currently undergoing a legal challenge by FSCR. A ruling on this challenge, based on inadequate studies of imported water storage and transfer, is expected later this summer.
Judge Randall also ruled that L.A. County must do further studies on siting of the project's water reclamation plant (WRP). The WRP is currently sited in the river floodplain, but the ruling requires that alternative sites be studied further. More studies must also be done on traffic impacts to Ventura County, in particular roads which feed into Routes 126 and 23. The ruling also requires further studies on project impacts to the portion of the Salt Creek wildlife corridor which lies in Ventura County. Newhall Ranch will force virtually all wildlife now transiting the property to use the Salt Creek corridor.
In an area of special importance to FSCR, the court ruled that the EIR must "address the issue of biological impacts on the river corridor based upon channelizing and hardening of the banks". The Specific Plan currently involves hardening of over half the river's banks and in excess of 300 acres of floodplain fill. It also results in the loss of over 100 acres of prime riparian habitat. Regarding the latter, the ruling requires that the Specific Plan be modified "so that it is consistent with the General Plan policies of Los Angeles County requiring protection of natural resources in Significant Ecological Areas".
Attorney's representing FSCR, SCOPE and the Sierra Club are now entitled to prepare a Writ of Mandate setting forth the actions that L.A. County and NLF must take to comply with Judge Randall's ruling. The court will retain jurisdiction over the case until the ruling is satisfied.
FSCR wishes to thank all those who have contributed their time and/or money to the cause of curtailing Newhall Ranch - persons too numerous to mention. We also especially wish to thank and commend John Buse, Jan Chatten-Brown and Doug Carstens, our attorneys, who put so much effort into developing the necessary legal documents and arguing the case. Without their knowledge and expertise, the outcome of this case could have been very different. Although the final chapter on Newhall Ranch has yet to be written, the ruling by Judge Randall serves to justify, in our view, all of the hard work, expense and nervous energy that have been expended to date in the battle against this potentially very damaging project.